In 2017, Bon Appétit named Chicago the best restaurant city in America. One year later, we are happy to report that the city is certainly not resting on its laurels — over the last 12 months, a handful of delicious new trends have emerged.
We’ve seen the rise of the omakase, bringing the world’s best sushi to the Midwest by way of luxe tasting menus from acclaimed chefs. We also added a slew of literary-themed restaurants that allow diners to immerse themselves in a book-filled setting.
Elsewhere, booze-focused wine and beer bars proved they could also churn out equally toothsome grub, and we welcomed plenty of California-style digs that’ll keep you (spiritually) warm through the winter. And then there were the hybrids: who knew that Korean/Italian and Southern/Bavarian are two culinary combos sent like manna from heaven?
But enough with the buzz. Below, we present our 10 favorite restaurant openings of 2018.
Dine on and drink well, people.
Image from Brian Willette
Pacific Standard Time
A taste of California resets its clocks to Central Standard
Quite possibly the most beautiful restaurant opening of 2018, Pacific Standard Time is about more than mere good looks. Chef Erling Wu-Bower’s menu of wood-fired items include pillowy pita served with marinated ahi tuna, and pizzas topped with mushrooms and XO sauce. West Coast meets Midwest with a variety of simple and seasonal vegetables and market-inspired cocktails, to boot.
Image from Funkenhausen
The lovechild of Southern and Bavarian flavors connects
The unconventional beer hall is an ideal spot for trying a slew of dishes inspired by Chef Mark Steuer’s Southern and German roots. Try the cabbage roll with beef tartare, gouda, pickled mustard and truffle, or the big-ass schnitzel with charred lemon. Brunch items are just as playful, like the Schnitz and Grits or Black Forest Donut.
Image from Aba
The toughest table in Chicago is well worth the wait
Any night of the week is guaranteed to be a busy one at Aba, the sister restaurant to Ema. It’s not only a place to see and be seen, it’s also a Mediterranean powerhouse with a massive menu from chef CJ Jacobson. From the heavenly everything Jerusalem bagel with whipped honey labneh, za’atar and lemon, to the silky smooth hummus and grilled kebabs, whatever you order will pack a serious punch.
Image from Passerotto
Korean with an Italian twist
One of the most exciting openings on the north side delivered a new take on Korean food from Chef Jennifer Kim. Raw fish is sliced to perfection and simply prepared, while the dukbokki with lamb neck ragu is a perfect crispy/chewy/umami combo. Don’t leave without trying the kalbi, a platter of glazed short rib served with seasonal banchan (housemade sides like kimchi, pickles and hot sauce).
Image from Kyōten
Omakase is the new black
2018 was the year of the omakase-style sushi restaurant, with Chicago aiming to keep up with its sushi-loving coastal friends. At Kyōten, Austin’s Otto Phan ambitiously offers the best of the best ingredients, flown in from Japan weekly. Sit in awe as Phan and co. meticulously prepare course after course of nigiri and sashimi to create the most expensive and exclusive sushi menu in the city.
Image from Jeff Ramini/Bar Ramone
Pintxos and porrones on repeat
It’s hard to believe the Lettuce Entertain You portfolio did not include a wine bar until this year. Bar Ramone is the latest tenant in a revolving door of a space in River North (RIP Bottlefork). But we think this one will stick: How can you go wrong with an endless array of Spanish-inspired small plates? While the marinated goat cheese is one of the simplest and best dishes we’ve eaten all year, it’s the porrones (Spanish for a shareable wine-drinking vessel) and patatas bravas that will keep us coming back.
Image from Madi Ellis (@madybobady)
Bao, burgers and beer
A beautifully appointed and bright dining room isn’t the only thing Bixi has going for it. The Logan square brewpub also features a menu of Asian-inspired beers and eats, including a homemade bao burger topped with Chinese bacon and handmade noodle soups from chef Bo Fowler of Owen & Engine fame. Wash it all down with house beers that feature unique flavors like lemongrass, jasmine tea and Szechuan peppercorns.
Image from Galdones Photography
Nostalgic comfort food with a Mark Twain-ian twist
Husband-and-wife team Tim (chef) and Rebekah (Beverage Director and Sommelier) Graham brought us a Mark Twain-inspired comfort-food spot this year that proved it was worth the risk. Standouts inspired by spiral-bound Midwestern cookbooks include the stick-to-your-bones Chicken and Dumplings, beer cheese soup and an addicting pretzel biscuit with malt butter. Enjoy it all inside a former car garage studded with subtle references to the literature of Mark Twain.
Image from Simeon Frierson
Booze, books and baked goods
Bibliophile is the neighborhood gathering place we didn’t know we needed. Hyde Park is where you’ll find a library-themed bar complete with shelves of books for sale, book-inspired drinks and boozy desserts like the Merlot-infused chocolate cake. Try the Great Expectations cocktail with butter-washed bourbon, earl grey demerara syrup and black walnut bitters. Not into booze? Grab a coffee or tea and immerse yourself in a book or two inside a dining room that gives off a library-meets-wine-bar vibe.
Image from Yuūgen
Japanese-influenced tasting menus from an all-female team
After the city mourned the loss of Grace, Yūgen had tough shoes to fill. But Chef Mari Katsumura’s 13-course Japanese tasting menu delivers, taking you on a culinary journey from curry to sashimi and so much more. The sleek decor contains remnants of its former tenant (hello, $1,000 chairs), but your experience is bound to feel brand new. For those who don’t want to shell out hundreds for a multi-course meal, the adjacent izakaya lounge, Kaisho, is a chic-meets-comfy space where you can enjoy a cocktail or three.
Main image from Funkenhausen